Ron Coffman propped a foot up on the bleacher row below him as he took in the commotion on the floor of the University of Maryland’s Xfinity Center Sept. 5. He seemed at one with his seat, where he had waited for the last seven hours, but his darting eyes showed he was anxious to hear his number called.
“It’s like M.A.S.H. down there,” he said, looking at the gym. “Just not outside.”
Coffman, 57, was one of the 1,260 patients who received free dental care the Mission of Mercy pop-up clinic September 5 and 6. The university’s Center for Health Equity partnered with Catholic Charities to host the event.
The scene in the center’s main gym floor did bear a striking resemblance to the popular 1970s television show based on a military field hospital during the Korean War. As an Army veteran from Vietnam, Coffman said he felt at ease in the midst of the chaos.
The care he would receive at this Mission of Mercy would be his first dental work since leaving the service. He receives health insurance as a veteran but dental insurance costs extra.
He suspected he’d need a few teeth pulled and possibly a new crown - his had been in for almost 30 years. Crowns last an average of 10-15 years..
Coffman left his Baltimore home at 4:45 a.m., arriving on campus to line up with hundreds of others by 5:30 a.m.
He expected to make a quick day of it – in, out and on the road again by 10 a.m. Instead, he watched the crowds from the bleachers at 1:30 p.m., listening to the announcer call numbers in the 570s.
He looked at the bracelet on his wrist – 588.
“Those guys were right in front of me,” he said. “How could they be down there already?”
As a veteran, Coffman represents a group of Americans used to waiting for health services.
Months after the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs admitted to systematically falsifying appointment wait times for thousands of veterans, Coffman has still waited almost 40 days to see a specialist about managing his diabetes.
Service was much faster for his congestive heart failure, he said. He underwent surgery to install a pacemaker several years ago.
He had regular insurance for years while working as a cook at Ft. Hood in Texas, but phases of poor health and heavy drinking forced him into an early retirement.
Coffman said he’s willing to put up with slow service through the V.A. in order to save money, but because his teeth weren’t injured during his stint in the Army the agency won’t pay for his dental care.
His teeth had been bothering him for several months before his daughter, a nurse, told him about Mission of Mercy.
He had tried calling around to private practices but prices were either too high or the insurance he could afford wouldn’t cover what he needed.
“They’re phony,” he said. “They tell you they’ll cover something then you get the paperwork and something changed.”
Dentists at the University of Maryland Dentistry wanted $125 for an appointment and couldn’t guarantee that all of what Coffman needed would be included in the initial fee.
This time, he said, the price is right.
About 30 minutes into our conversation, the announcer called Coffman’s number to start the medical screening and triage process. He jumped up immediately.
“It’s been nice talking to you,” he said. “But I’ve got to get down there. I’m not taking no chances.”
Ron Coffman of Baltimore watches patients as he waits to receive free dental care at the Mission of Mercy health clinic.